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Column Fri Mar 26 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine, Greenberg, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Chloe, Mother and Prodigal Sons

Hot Tub Time Machine

Sometimes you admire a comedy because of its subtle wit and cleverness, because it keeps a sustained smile on your face that lasts the duration of the film. Other times, you fall head over heels for a comedy because it is balls-out the perfect combination of stupidity and intelligence, with a healthy serving of charm thrown in and a dash of the grotesque. Welcome to Hot Tub Time Machine, folks, a movie that almost dares you not to giggle your way into a frothy stupor. What put this film over the top for me was its complete and utter disregard not only for conventional logic and sensibility, but the film actually bothers to set up its own time-space continuum rules and then breaks them with a wanton disregard for the Butterfly Effect. On the plus side, Time Cop's essential rule about the same person from two different times occupying the same space is cited and dealt with quite effectively. But for God's sake, this isn't a movie about science; it's about partying '80s style, and who better to do that with than John Cusack?

First off, let's take a look at Hot Tub Time Machine's genealogy. Director Steve Pink was a co-writer of two of Cusack's best post-brat pack works, Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity. He also directed the underrated college comedy Accepted. His history with Cusack clearly works to our advantage here, since the one-time Hoops McCann, Bryce from Sixteen Candles, and Lloyd Dobler seems willing and comfortable embracing and mocking his '80s past for the first time ever. At one point, I'm pretty sure the younger version of the Hot Tub character Adam is wearing a familiar-looking trench coat. The screenplay is credited to newcomer Josh Heald, Sean Anders (writer of She's Out of My League and writer-director of Sex Drive) and John Morris (also a co-writer of League and Sex Drive). What I loved about the screenplay is that it meshes the debauchery with actual lessons about standing up for yourself, friendship, and following you dreams without getting lost in any level of sentimental nonsense.

But Hot Tub Time Machine is a selfish creature, one that only truly cares about you if you're laughing, and so it goes out of its way and mind to make sure you're doing just that. The story is about three guys who have been friends since high school -- Cusack's Adam; Craig Robinson as the responsible, married Nick; and Rob Corddry as party deviant Lou. I need to say that this is the first film where Corddry knocks it the fuck out of the park. This is as much an on-screen breakthrough for him as Zach Galifianakis' turn in The Hangover, although this is a very different character. I've endured him being wasted in movie after movie since he left "The Daily Show," often reduced to overacting and yelling as a substitute for actual humor. But as adult-slacker Lou, Corddry hits his stride and plays him with a perfect balance of abandon and utter control of his gifts as a comic actor. I certainly don't mean to leave out Robinson, who is the portrait of restraint and underplaying his part for maximum effect. He's so good here, you almost miss it. Nick is always concerned about cheating on his wife, but when the guys realize that in order not to mess up the continuum, they have to do exactly what they did in the '80s, he remembers that he got laid. Oh, the angst and guilt!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The "story" of Hot Tub Time Machine involves the three friends deciding -- after Lou may or may not have attempted to kill himself -- that they need to revisit the old ski lodge where they used to party in high school. Today, the place is a rundown pit, but in the '80s, the place was hopping. They are forced to drag Adam's nerdy nephew Jacob (the effortlessly funny Clark Duke, also from Sex Drive and the upcoming Kick-Ass) along with them, and although the lodge is a mess, Lou decides that some booze, drugs and hookers will fix that right up. They decide to warm up the hot tub on the back porch, and after a night of heavy partying, a weird alcoholic concoction is spilled into the controls, which some how turns this hot tub into a spinning, wormhole-opening vortex that sends them back to a very specific date in the 1980s, one that featured events that forever changed their worlds and paved the way for their dissatisfied lives.

As a longtime John Cusack fan, I have to say how pleased I was to see him cut loose a little and acknowledge the era that made him a star. I like the idea that the people in the '80s see these four travelers as they were at the time and now how they look today. Well, except for Clark Duke's character, who wasn't even born when these events took place, but whose very existence seems to somehow hinge on the events that occurred on that fateful weekend. But don't think about it too hard or it might hurt your brain. The details aren't important here.

There are some nice running side gags that keep Hot Tub Time Machine flowing, such as Crispin Glover as the angry, one-armed bellhop in the present (and happy two-armed bellhop in the past). His character is one big, funny waiting game. I also liked Lizzy Kaplan as a music journalist at the resort, there to cover a Poison performance, who runs into Adam. (Sidenote: I have never been more willing to listen to a soundtrack that consists almost entirely of Poison and Motley Crue tunes.) The two click, but since they never met in the past, Adam is pretty sure he shouldn't be spending time with her. Instead, he and other guys focus on recreating events of the past. The thing is, straying from what has already happened is just too much fun. Chevy Chase is tossed into the mix as the hot tub repairman, who seems to know how to fix it and get the boys back to the present day.

What had me rolling almost from the first time jaunt is that Hot Tub Time Machine sets up certain rules and parameters, and then seems to say, "Fuck it! Let's do what makes us drunk and gives us boners!" Despite its many differences, the movie has a similar cavalier attitude about time travel that the Bill & Ted movies did. The film turns idiotic behavior into an art form, foulness into an asset, and debauchery into an Olympic sport. If you're not having fun while you're watching this movie, please call your physician immediately and have that pole removed from your ass. It's so much fun watching this group of actors simply give themselves over to the ridiculousness of it all; and I readily and happily did the same.

Greenberg

It's great to see that Ben Stiller still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and I'll admit, I was concerned when I heard that he was teaming with writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale; Margot at the Wedding), because I feared that Baumbach would tailor his dry, blunt sense of humor to suit Stiller's less-subtle approach as an actor. Instead what we get is one of Stiller's best roles in quiet some time (I'd put it on par with his semi-serious/semi-funny work in Permanent Midnight). In Greenberg, Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a jobless, free-floating man who once had a shot at a music career but basically chickened out. He moves from New York to LA to house sit while his brother (Chris Messina) and his family go on an extended vacation. Roger seems committed to doing nothing while in LA, but that doesn't quite work out.

He meets the family's assistant-housekeeper-dog caretaker Florence (Greta Gerwig), who is also an aspiring singer who has just gotten out of a long-term relationship and seems about as adrift as Roger. The two sort of hit it off, enough to attempt a date and even sex, although neither activity is especially successful. Roger's brusque, off-putting demeanor makes it difficult to see how he has ever made a single friend in his life, but he did and we meet a few of them, including former bandmates played by Rhys Ifans and Mark Duplass. Ifans' character Ivan is especially interesting as he is going through a tough time with his wife and kids, and he wants nothing more than to fix things and fall back into his comfortable life.

Greenberg is populated with characters searching for anything resembling a connection, but we've seen that before. What separates Baumbach's work is that his characters are also searching for a vocabulary with which to express themselves to actually make these connections. Roger sets far too easily achievable goals for himself, such as building a doghouse for his brother's dog or writing letters of complaint to corporations about the most inconsequential things. It's almost embarrassing how he conducts his life, but that doesn't stop people for sometimes being inexplicably drawn to him, including Florence.

Unless you follow the so-called Mumblecore scene, Gerwig will probably be new to you. And her struggle to express herself is equal parts endearing and frustrating (her good looks push it into the endearing hemisphere for me). Florence goes through a crisis of her own late in the film, and her inability to handle it is awful and sweet at the same time. She excels at making most meaningless turn of phrase seem funny and tragic. I've seen her in other works, but this is the first time I fell for her completely. Not to overlook Stiller's performance, which is something of substance. Roger is not simply playing Stiller-esque type. He's a miserable, needy human being that I seriously doubt I'd ever want to spend any time with in the real world, but in Greenberg, he's worth watching. There's a sequence during which he allows his brother's stepdaughter to throw a college party in the house. They way he interacts with the younger people is sublime as he expresses both envy and disdain for their ideas, ideals and mistaken belief that they are invulnerable. Terrific stuff from Stiller, although you may end up hating Roger by the end of the film, if not sooner. But it's less important to like him then it is to understand where he's coming from.

Baumbach doesn't change much up in terms of his writing or visual style, but I don't have a problem with that. I happen to like his straightforward approach to directing, while letting his writing and work with actors rule the day. Stiller and Gerwig are great together and apart; they don't need to play off each other to be great, but when they are together, the discomfort is palpable, but the attraction makes sense as well. Greenberg won't go down as one of my favorites of the year, but Baumbach is getting better and more mature as a filmmaker, and the more he makes me squirm watching his creations, the more I applaud him. This is a superb exercise in awkward beauty. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Hot on the heels of last year's warts-and-all Walt and El Grupo, about Disney animators (and Walt himself) who traveled to South America during a strike at the company, comes this fascinating examination of the 10 year period beginning in 1984 that ushered in a new Golden Age at Disney that included the releases of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Lion King. The idea of new Disney animated musicals was unheard of at the time, when just a year or two earlier The Care Bears Movie was beating new Disney releases. And while the film spends plenty of time examining the wondrous process that goes into creating each new character, song and film, the most interesting aspects of Waking Sleeping Beauty are the corporate wheeling and dealing that occurred between the heir apparent Roy Disney (Walt's nephew, who died recently), then-company CEO Michael Eisner and then-head of Disney's film division Jeffrey Katzenberg.

You might think this work would be all sunshine and daisies, but even more so than Walt and El Grupo, this latest work is shockingly open and honest about how conflicting egos almost sank the company at its peak. Removing the politeness filters seems to be the order of the day in Waking Sleeping Beauty as animators openly criticize those in charge of various aspects of the way the company was run at the time. But somehow, this pressure and tension brought about some of the finest works Disney has ever released, as well as established a proving ground for talented artists and idea sculptors (including Tim Burton and John Lasseter). Director Don Hahn (a producer during the period depicted in the film, who also serves as narrator) somehow manages to keep the flow of critical information flowing, with Eisner and Katzenberg taking the hardest hits, while Roy Disney seems to be the only one who understands that the animation department is not just a legacy but also the cornerstone on which the theme parks, merchandising, and most things Disney rest.

Some of the film's most glorious moments are the seemingly endless stream of home movies taken by those in the animation department of pitch meetings, character development pow-wows, recording sessions, and just general goofing off and theme parties around the office. I could have watched this footage for days because the creative process in an animation studio never seems to get boring, especially for the movies discussed in Waking Sleeping Beauty. Some of the most interesting stuff comes from the section of the film that deals with Roger Rabbit, during which we see Steven Spielberg be incredibly hands on in the production. But to single out one portion of the film or another is pointless, because the entire movie is thoroughly engrossing and informative. We all hear rumors about troubles on certain productions (Disney or otherwise), but it's interesting to watch many of these stories play out in such a public display of corporate foolishness and short sightedness (if there is such a word). Still, there's little denying that this period in Disney history was rich and fruitful and profitable. Waking Sleeping Beauty lets us know how that happened, and how creativity beat the odds and won in the end. Disney fan or not, you have to see this film.

Chloe

Not to put to fine a point on it, but most people will go to see Atom Egoyan's latest, Chloe, to get their first real look at Amanda Seyfried partially naked, and my goodness would that be enough for the price of admission. But my guess is that most of you who go into the film with such noble ambitions will actually be drawn into this very clever and intimate psychological erotic thriller about suspicion, paranoia, desire and emotional deception. And did I mention that you get to see Seyfried's boobies?

Egoyan has long been one of my favorite directors since I first saw The Adjuster in the early 1990s. Since then, he has managed to hypnotize me in one way or another with some of the most atmospheric and haunting films of the last 20 years, including Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia's Journey, Ararat and Adoration. Of all of his previous works, Chloe bears the strongest resemblance to Exotica, with Julianne Moore playing Catherine, a gynecologist who is deeply suspicious that her flirtatious music professor husband David (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her. After nearly going insane with pent of jealousy, Catherine meets a stunning prostitute (Seyfried), whom she hires to hit on her husband and see if he takes the bait.

Chloe heads off to perform her services and returns to Catherine with a juicy retelling of the events that include a picnic and the search for a quiet place for a little fooling around. What Catherine does not anticipate is that the stories about David's infidelities actually turn her on and make her remember what got her so hot and bothered about him when they first met. The other offshoot of Chloe's magnificently blunt words is that Catherine starts to find herself attracted to this master seductress as well. Seyfried has never been more polished and nakedly forceful in a role ever. This is a far cry from what she's accomplished in Mamma Mia! or the recent Dear John, and even when she's fully dressed, her performance is absolutely mesmerizing and overflowing with sexual charisma.

Not to underplay the fine work done my Neeson or Moore -- both play their parts to perfection, falling right into Chloe's finely spun web. Moore, in particular, embodies the middle-aged woman who is still quite beautiful but is also well aware of every young thing that her husband smiles at. This couple were clearly a passionate pair before they had their now-grown son (Max Thieriot), and every year pulls them just a little further apart. Moore's performances is a blend of desperation, primal lust, and a undeniable gravitational pull toward something new and terrifying.

Chloe's third act wraps things up perhaps a little too predictably. We have a sense early on that Egoyan may be cheating a little in what he's showing us and what he isn't, but it never seemed to completely rip me out of the gripping plot. This is a master of sensuality doing some of his best work, and I enjoyed the ride, maybe a little too much. The film opens at the Music Box Theatre and other locations around Chicago.

Mother

I've been genuinely shocked by the lukewarm reaction by some critics to the latest crime drama from South Korean master Bong Joon-ho, whose previous film was the fantastic monster movie The Host. But his latest work, Mother, is more like his eerie and stark earlier work Memories of Murder, which also chronicled a mysterious death. Mother has more modest ambitions than either of those two films, and I think the focus on just a few main characters benefits the relatively small but bizarre plot. The set-up for Mother made me uneasy from the jumping-off point.

Do-joon (Won Bin) is the mentally handicapped grown son of his mother (Kim Hye-ja), an overly protective woman who would clearly go to any lengths to keep her son out of harm's way, a task made all the more difficult by the mounting evidence pointing to him as the murderer of a young girl. We see Do-joon follow the girl through the darkened alleyways of his town and even follow her into a building where he believes she has entered, but then the film cuts to the investigation, where the easily terrified man-child confesses to an act he can't even remember. While the lazy police continue to gather evidence against her son, the mother begins an investigation of her own. Kim Hye-ja is something of a superstar in South Korea, but I'm fairly certain I've never seen her before. She's a combination of manic, inconsolable protector and keen observer of those she interviews.

Much as he did in Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho exhibits an interest in both small-town closed mindedness and in its secrets. He understands that a tight-knit community holds onto its affairs even if it means protecting a deviant criminal. They don't like outsiders invading, and they'll do anything to preserve their affairs. The phenomenon is deliberately frustrating to watch in Mother, and it might even make you angry, but it will never bore you. The performances, including those by the actors playing the police interested in closing the case as quickly and easily as possible, are all quite convincing and solid, while the mother and son go a long way to sell their relationship. I love the way the director keeps us guessing almost until the end whether the son might have actually done the things of which he is accused. Mother has a smaller scale than Bong Joon-ho's previous works, but it's no less engaging and suspenseful. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Prodigal Sons

You will never see another film like Prodigal Sons; it's impossible. This documentary from first-time filmmaker Kimberly Reed about returning home for a class reunion in Montana is filled with more twists and turns than I can possibly relay here (not that I would want to). When we first see Reed, we're struck by her statuesque beauty, and soon we're following her back into a home and hometown she has avoided for years because she has been afraid her old friends will not accept her. You see, Kimberly had been male and extremely popular in high school. She is also thrown back into contact with her long-estranged adopted brother, who had a terrible accident years earlier that has left his brain slightly altered to the point where fits of paranoia and rage sometimes take over.

Reed believes she has set out to document what is essentially her coming-out party with her high school friends, but like any good documentarian, she lets the story head in the most interesting direction, which is toward her family. When her brother decides to look into his family bloodline, he discovers that he is a direct descendant of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, a revelation that takes the story to some pretty bizarre places. But what's just as fascinating is that the brother seems to love the attention after years of living with Kimberly's transformation being the family's focal point.

But even the Welles connection isn't the end of the story as the brother falls deeper into a dark emotional and mental pit, with most of his anger aimed at Kimberly. There are a number of scenes in Prodigal Sons that are almost too painful and uncomfortable to watch, especially when the yelling and name calling begin. The film pulls back the curtain on a once-happy family that has seen its share of confusion and tragedy, and still managed to hold it together to a degree. I don't want to give too much more away, because this is a film that exists and thrives because of its small moments. Reed has fashioned a stunning debut, and if she manages to make another films as compelling about a subject she feels less passionate about, I'd be shocked, but I hope she does because Prodigal Sons is fantastic stuff. The film opens today for a week long engagement at Facets Cinemateque.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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